England book their place in Russia with little excitement
Harry Kane sent Gareth Southgate’s side to the World Cup with an injury time winner
England 1 Slovakia 0
These are the moments England are supposed to enjoy. Their place in the World Cup is secure and, if we are going to be generous, they must be doing something right bearing in mind they have now reached four major tournaments in a row without losing a solitary qualifying match.
Unfortunately for England, it did not always feel like a night for celebration until that moment, three minutes into stoppage time, when Harry Kane sugarcoated a bland night of football with the goal that confirmed Gareth Southgate’s team would not be conspicuous by their absence when the World Cup draw is made inside the Kremlin on December 1st.
Yet it was a strange night notable for the boos for Raheem Sterling when a late attack broke down and, again, when Ryan Bertrand aimed a pass all the way back to Joe Hart from the halfway line.
Had it not been for Kane’s late intervention the final whistle would, almost certainly, have led to another show of dissent. Instead, Kane did at least manage to spare his team from that kind of embarrassment. Yet for a team that still likes to think of itself as football royalty – note Marcus Rashford’s statement in the week that England were finally in a position to repeat 1966 – it was hardly the most convincing way to reach Russia.
More than anything, England still seem to struggle with the simple rules that the most effective international teams know how to take care of the ball. Raheem Sterling got away with two moments of carelessness, both in the opening quarter of an hour, when he gave away possession inside his own half.
Slovenia did not take advantage either when Joe Hart’s throw-out put Kyle Walker in a tight spot and he headed the ball straight to a player in green. These might have been only passing incidents, not hugely important to the greater narrative, but the bottom line is that opponents might not be so obliging if these mistakes are replicated next summer.
At other times England could be seen trying to play the ball out of defence without appearing entirely comfortable with the tactic and it was strange, to say the least, to see Walker being handed the responsibility when the team had a free-kick 25 yards from goal.
As Kane, Marcus Rashford and Eric Dier watched on – three players, in other words, who are regulars in dead-ball situations – Walker strode towards the ball and curled his shot hopelessly over the crossbar.
Perhaps he had shown in training he was more useful in these positions than has been shown hitherto in his career. Otherwise, file this one with Kane being handed corner-taking duties in Euro 2016.
On another occasion in the first half, England had a free-kick to the left of the penalty area and decided to try something fancy rather than the old-fashioned tactic of putting the cross into the penalty area. Rashford played it short to Bertrand who turned it on to Jordan Henderson and a sideways exchange ended with an air shot from the Liverpool player, throwing himself off balance in the process. It wasn’t a performance, to sum it up, that left the impression of a side that was ready to take on the world.
Rashford was England’s liveliest player, always willing to run at the Slovenian defence and not deterred by the moments when his improvisational tricks and whipped-in crosses did not work out. He was a difficult opponent, with Bertrand often in support, but England needed a touch more subtlety at times and could also be vulnerable on the break, especially when attacks broke down with their two full-backs in advanced areas.
One of those counterattacks led to the outstanding chance of the first half and, fortunately for England, Andraz Sporar was unable to get a clean connection with his shot.
Sterling could also be seen waving an apologetic hand after another give-away in the second half and, on this evidence, he is better in wide positions rather than taking up a central role. Sterling did at least keep looking for the ball whereas Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose club form hardly warranted his place in the starting XI, missed another opportunity to flourish, lasting 63 minutes before his number went up and Jesse Lingard was given the chance to see if he could do any better.
By that stage, the night had taken a slightly ignominious twist. It never looks good when the crowd have to make their own entertainment and it probably sums up England’s performance that for a while the loudest cheers were for the paper planes that had taken flight from the stands.
Rashford had the chance to lift the mood but could not get his chip right after Sterling had given him a chance to lift the ball over the Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Sterling then had a chance of his own, blocked by the opposition captain Bostjan Cesar, but even Kane was finding it difficult to trouble the visiting defence. Kane has been in brilliant form recently but this was not his best performance.
England had six minutes of stoppage time to find a winner but they also needed Hart to spare them with a fine, and courageous, double save before the decisive attack. Walker surged down the right and Kane was sliding in to get the decisive touch in front of Oblak.